Chartered Institute
of Linguists

Anam Zafar - first winner of the Nick Bowen Award - leaving Lesvos

This final blog records my last week working with Movement On The Ground (MOTG) in Lesvos, as well as my thoughts on returning home.

My last week was as busy as usual, with plenty of linguistic opportunities as always:

  • Trying to explain the meaning and use of ‘anyway’ to an Afghan resident volunteer during a kitchen shift. I now have renewed respect for English teachers!
  • Interpreter during a new “Humans of Lesvos” project, with two residents who requested to carry out their interviews for the project in Arabic.
  • Helping to solve a misunderstanding in the shared kitchen concerning the kitchen rules. This was a challenge, as the Arab woman involved was upset which meant that she spoke very quickly using a lot of slang. This made it hard for me to understand her, which was understandably frustrating from her point of view! The resident volunteer who was in charge during that shift spoke Farsi – which I do not – and only a little English, so it was a further challenge trying to explain to him what was happening. Luckily, another resident volunteer who speaks Arabic, Farsi and English came to save the day!
  • Arabic interpreter during a meeting with Movement staff and a Syrian resident about a potential new gardening project. I had built a rapport with this resident volunteer through working with him often, whereas the Movement staff who were visiting from Holland for a week were unknown to the both of us. This made the meeting a challenge, as I had to refrain from offering my own comments and was liable to subconsciously take sides, neither of which would be acceptable as an unbiased interpreter.

Here are the stand-out moments of my last week:

  • The volunteers’ dinner, which is a monthly celebration of the resident volunteers. During this dinner, I experienced how it felt to be surrounded by an unfamiliar language. I sat on a table with Afghan volunteers and had to rely on the girl sitting next to me, a shop interpreter, to explain the jokes that were being made and to help me to speak with the volunteers who I had not yet met. Thanks to this girl’s kindness, I felt included in the conversation and was able to make new friends – another experience which proves the importance of interpreting.
  • The “Humans of Lesvos” project. I really enjoyed interpreting for a creative project, especially one with a humanitarian conscience. As a fan of awareness-raising through the arts, to be asked to take part in this project, rather than having to chase the opportunity myself, was very exciting. I also enjoyed shadowing Florence, the lead volunteer of the project, as she works as a freelance journalist and I had a lot of questions for her about the life of a freelancer!

The coast of Lesvos - a stunning island which is at the heart of a major humanitarian crisis

I was worried about feeling racked with guilt once the time came to leave the island. It turns out, though, that I simply feel glad that I was able to volunteer, after years of having the intention but not the right opportunity. While every volunteer at Movement plays a very important role in running the organisation, I am grateful that I was able to offer my linguistic skills to complement my regular volunteering duties. During my six-week placement, I was the only Arabic-speaking international volunteer with MOTG; time and again the value of knowing Arabic was made clear. People commented on the quality of connections that I was able to make with residents, through communicating with them in their native language. Although I heard some shocking stories from residents, which were difficult to process, I would never have taken away the opportunity for a resident to get something off their chest and educate us “internationals” on the reality of the situation – especially when the reality is much more brutal than the Western media depicts.

So, how does it feel now, to be removed from the situation after 40 days of complete immersion in the refugee crisis? I must say that it is difficult to take interest in “first-world problems” (for want of a better phrase) after what I have seen and heard. However, I am happy that my experience has encouraged some around me to seriously consider and ask questions about this humanitarian issue for the first time. I am also extremely grateful to those who supported my Crowdfunder page ( I think some family members may have even caught my volunteering bug…

When I left Lesvos on the 26th April, it was with the word “momentum” on my lips. In whatever form my future linguistic career takes, I know that I will continue working with refugees. The range of activities that I was involved in on this placement have only stoked my fire. Leaving Lesvos was not the end; it is only the beginning.

Read more about Movement On The Ground here: